A Hot Feat for Hot Feet

In 1992, you would not have called Mario Moretti Polegato an entrepreneur. He was a vintner, bottling wines from Italy’s Treviso region. In that year, business took Polegato to Reno, Nevada (US) for a meeting of international wine producers. Seeking to make the most of his visit to the United States’ scenic west, Polegato found himself with sweaty feet from a hike in the mountain summer heat. His solution? Cut holes in the soles of his shoes so they might breathe. Something he did on the spot and still has both the shoes and a scar to show for it.

Not a Sole Sufferer

Polegato was simultaneously delighted with his innovation, and dissatisfied with it. One the one hand, he could not be the only person in the world afflicted with the discomfort of sweaty feet. Surely his idea would have interest to a potential consumer audience. But on the other, the innovation had an obvious problem. What was fantastic in the dry desert would be downright damp on a rainy London street. He still had work to do before he could leave the winery and pursue his newfound mission of making feet around the world more comfortable.

Novel Combinations

Then Polegato started doing something often seen in the world of new ventures. He put things together that had never been put together before. Two of his more fruitful, though not initially obvious inputs came from: NASA: Anxious to find a material that would let sweat out, while keeping rainwater from getting in, Poegato’s search took him to Houston, Texas (US) where he found a material developed to perform exactly the same purpose ? but for space suits. Researchers: Both at the University of Padua (Italy) and the University of Trondheim (Norway), Polegato found materials science researchers working on membrane technology to manage water transfer. Making the connection to his need, Polegato also engaged them in development of his new shoe. Combining those unusual partners with a bit of investment money and some assistance with footwear design from a small ski-boot company, Polegato stepped out with something truly novel ? a shoe that breathes.

Walking in an Entrepreneur’s Shoes

Polegato’s story offers three useful items for any entrepreneur. The first is that opportunities abound, and the second is that an easy way to create opportunities is simply by looking for problems people need solved. The third is that innovation is more often a process of combination than it is of invention. Everything Polegato needed to create breathable shoes existed ? but nobody had put the pieces together to create a shoe before.

But Will People Beat a Path to the Door?

Apparently, Polegato was not the only foot-sweater in the world. In 2007, his breathable-shoe producing firm Geox posted net income of $97 million against sales of $548 million. The firm employs 3,500 people worldwide, and contracts to almost as many more. Polegato himself made the Forbes list of the top 300 richest people in the world this year, and perhaps more important, has had dry, comfortable feet for years.


Written by Stuart Read, professor of marketing at IMD and Nick Dew, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School.  Art is credited to hisks, through stock.exchng.

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Stuart Read